Lifestyle & Belief

Q&A: Thomas Cahill on religious conflict throughout history


Thomas Cahill


Robin Holland

Thomas Cahill is author of the bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization, the first in the "Hinges of History" series in which Cahill follows Western civilization through its culture-shaping figures, to continuing acclaim. Cahill is also a biographer of Pope John XXIII, and a popular figure on the lecture circuit. Heretics and Heroes, his new book, is a cultural and political history of the stormy transition from the Renaissance to Martin Luther’s revolt, which Cahill calls the “Religious Bomb....radical permanent changes in basic religious beliefs.”

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry talks with Cahill — who was the acquiring editor at Doubleday for Berry's 1992 book Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children — about Syria, the Sunni/Shia divide, and the history of religious conflict.


Q: Islam seems to be that 'Religious Bomb' today, and Syria its most violent flashpoint. Is there a central insight you draw from the wars of Christianity that once wracked Europe in looking at Syria and what it will take to achieve stability there?

A: After the Reformation, the next period was the Enlightenment — the first time that clusters of people began to say, “do we really have to keep killing one another? Couldn’t we just agree to disagree and tolerate other opinions?” 

It seems simple to us at this end, but the idea as first proposed was not universally accepted. Today it’s only at the very fringes of Christianity that you get people who would be willing to draw blood over theological issues; but that was certainly not true in the 16th and 17th centuries – kill the enemy. The heresy was whatever you disagreed with. One man’s heresy, another man’s faith.

Islam is seven centuries younger than Christianity. If we pitch our selves back seven centuries we don’t see the barest semblance of toleration. I don’t mean that there’s only one possible mode of progress or change. The battle between the Sunni and Shia reminds me of the fight between Catholics and Protestants. You see a broad spectrum of people who’d rather not kill others, all things being equal; and then there are trigger-happy believers, who would be so deflated if toleration swept Islam.

I don’t mean to suggest that history goes in a line or that it’s cyclical, going over and over. I think about it lot. I’m not sure if history is processive or cyclical. Is what Christianity once did the only pattern that Islam divide follows? Is it the only way human beings go from intolerance to tolerance? I’m not sure.

Q: The Sunni/Shia divide in Islam is shaping up as a proxy war in Syria with Shia-Iran on one side and Sunni-Saudi Arabia on the other. Will we see more of this?

A: Every talk I give, in the question period someone asks about the future. And I say I don’t know anything about the future. I think we delude ourselves when we imagine we have enough to know what’s going to happen next in human activity. Between the Sunni and the Shia it does not look good. But is there no way out? Will enough leaders arise to take advantage for prospects of making peace? I don’t know. I’m on a lot firmer ground talking about the US than the Middle East. I live here and vote here.

The United States could go into complete decay or it could become stronger. Either one is possible. So much depends on mix of human beings that you have at a given moment. If you look back on history and you removed Jefferson, or Franklin, or Lincoln, if one of those people died in childhood, would we have become the same country? I don’t think so. I don’t think Jefferson would have been replaced by another Jefferson. In every era there are people who for better or worse create that era. If Hitler had died in childhood would we have had the Second World War? I doubt it.

None of the Protestant Reformation would make sense without Luther. This is largely a fight between southern Europe and northern Europe, particularly Italy and Germany, the two sides of the Alps, who to this very day look at each other with such disdain.

Q: What role can, or should, religion play in a peace process? Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel and Palestine all have or have had religious elements to the conflict. Do you need a religious element to resolve the struggle?

A: I don’t think you need a religious element to resolve nonreligious struggles. In a place like South Africa, a major figure like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who knows how to speak to the whole spectrum of religion, is essential in such circumstances. Unfortunately many of these conflicts don’t yield someone like him.

When I was at Doubleday, Tutu became one of my authors, like you. He came with a book of essays his assistant had collected. We signed him for three books. I suggested he do an anthology called The African Prayer Book. He insisted on calling it An African Prayer Book. And it’s still in print, with new editions. One of the beautiful things about it is it’s not just Christian or Anglican prayers; he has prehistoric Egyptian prayers, contemporary Jewish and Islamic prayers; prayers from indigenous animist religions. It’s lovely. Someone who’s really catholic with a small “c” found expressions of prayer in every African tradition. That’s the kind of person who can bring about peace — because he has an appreciation of people who are not like himself.

Q: In writing about the Council of Trent, called in 1545 in response to the Protestant Reformation, you suggest that a greater development kept the Latin church intact, the far-flung work of missionaries, like Jesuits, by which “the map of Christianity was beginning to be redrawn in radical shifts that would make Catholicism the first worldwide religion.” With the first Jesuit pope, after nearly a generation of scandals and a sharp decline in Catholic worship in Western countries, do you hold much hope for a single pope to reverse that tide?

A: My answer is yes and no. Francis is doing a great job and it’s hard to imagine how he could be doing better. Some of the things that must change within Catholicism have to be done by consensus rather than a pope. John XXIII understood that by calling the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He knew he simply couldn’t legislate change. He needed the bishops who formally represented their people. He needed a congress in effect to make the changes.

There’s not going to be another ecumenical council, but Francis by calling this synod [a special assembly in Rome to address issues of the family] in October is intending to do the same thing. He’s told the bishops he wants to know what people think about family dynamics

Many American bishops have decided not to poll their people.

We have all these conservative whacko bishops, thanks to the last two popes with their appointments. Worldwide, the bishops are a bunch of crazy conservatives — not just conservatives. Under John Paul II the only one way to be made a bishop was to agree to be against the ordination of women, birth control, divorce and remarriage, abortion, anything having to do with gays. No one could agree on all that unless you were dishonest. And, you had to be against Liberation Theology. Except for this small coterie of bishops, most Catholics don’t believe those things. Start with birth control. Everyone practices this unless they don’t have sex. How is it that we have two-children families and we used to have to eight-children families? My parents had six. Nobody’s doing that any more.

In Europe you still have a few sane and intelligent bishops – vis-a-vis the Swiss and German polls of dioceses as reported in the media.

Q: Are there any bishops in America you admire?

A: No. But I don’t know them all by any means. To me, they go from moderately conservative to absurdly conservative. You had to agree with all those things to be appointed. People who agreed were either stupid or not telling the truth.

Q: Near the end of Heretics and Heroes, you say, “It may be that artists, because they see further than the rest of us, can occasionally foresee the coming of epochal changes to which the common herd may be blind.” Who are some of the artists or writers today that you see giving us foresight on global events to come?

A: As far as writers I would mention Mario Vargas Llosa. He has a very keen sense of justice. The typical sins of politicians and powerful men are what they do to those who are not powerful. Feast of the Goat [a novel about Rafael Trujillo, former dictator of the Dominican Republic] and The Dream of The Celt, about Roger Casement in Ireland come to mind. Casement is an incredibly interesting figure who has often been trashed for stupid reasons. Vargas Llosa understands power. He’s penetrating on so many different cultures. His study of Flaubert [The Perpetual Orgy] shows his understanding of 19th century France. He understands the Belgian Congo and Ireland on verge of revolution in late 19th century, in The Dream of the Celt. I know that material very well. … In the Renaissance and Reformation, I would add Bruegel, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Donne, and Cervantes. Since then, Bach, Beethoven, Dostoyevski, Rothko, Tom Stoppard and John Patrick Shanley. 

Each of these has, I think, identified in his own time some of the seeds of the future. This is hardly a complete list, and not all of the works of these guys are prophetic. If I had to choose but one, I choose the Kyrie of Bach's B Minor Mass.

For many writers an ability to intuit something about the near future goes back to their having lived in more than one environment, knowing that the presuppositions and mores of one culture are not the limits of human experience, aspiration or of human sin.

More from GlobalPost: 'What is religion for, anyway?'

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is author of "Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church."